Steven Medema Joins Duke Economics as Research Professor of Economics and Associate Director of the HOPE Center

Thursday, August 15, 2019
Professor Steve Medema

Duke Economics is pleased to welcome Dr. Steven Medema to the department as Research Professor and Associate Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy (HOPE Center). 

Economics wasn’t really on Medema’s radar when he started his undergraduate degree at Calvin College in Michigan. “I actually started out as a premed, and I hated every minute of it. I was taking cell biology, chemistry, econ, and Latin. My two favorite courses were econ and Latin, so I knew I needed to make a change.” After that, the Michigan native took all the economics classes he could, and then headed to Michigan State to get his Ph.D.

After graduating with his Ph.D., Medema started his first academic posting at University of Colorado Denver , where he stayed for the next 30 years. “I grew up a skier and really wanted to live in Colorado. Any job in Colorado was the first job on my list. I think it violates all the economist’s views about utility (lexicographic preferences), thinking that anywhere in Colorado is better than anything else, regardless of the attributes,” he said. Medema ended up at CU Denver at a critical time—the department was being re-built from the ground up, and he was the first hire. Over the next decade, he helped in building a successful department and economics program.

In graduate school, Medema did work in four different fields: public economics, labor economics, law and economics and history of economic thought.  He was always interested in the history of economic thought, but saw it more as something he would do on the side. However, early in his career he was invited to write a biography of Ronald Coase, and very much enjoyed it. “I ended up liking history of economics a lot more, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to follow this more and see where it leads’. Slowly over time, all of my research moved in that direction.”

Medema describes his research as “Looking at how economic thinking has evolved over time and how it has impacted things within and outside the profession. How did economists come to believe the things that they believe to be true, and how did these ideas make their way into the public realm?” One of the areas that Medema’s research focuses on is “economics imperialism,” or how economics has influenced other social sciences, such as sociology, law, political theory, and religion.

After spending the last decade heading up the university-wide honors program at CU Denver, Medema is looking forward to focusing his energies on research and teaching. He will also be the Associate Director of the HOPE Center. “Duke is the leading center in the world for the history of economics, and has been for a long, long time. The opportunity to be a part of that group was really attractive to me,” said Medema. He will be working alongside HOPE Center director Bruce Caldwell and is hoping to attract new and diverse audiences to the field. Medema is looking forward to working closely with his colleagues at the HOPE Center and being surrounded by other prominent economists who are studying its history. He’s also looking forward to working with the young fellows that come to the Center every year. “I enjoy reading their work, providing lots of feedback, helping them develop their careers.”

Because of his honors program responsibilities at CU Denver, Medema was rarely in his economics office in recent years. However, he’s excited to reconnect with economics on an everyday basis. Being able to immerse himself in the economics community at Duke was a huge attraction, and Medema is looking forward to attending seminars, collaboration with colleagues, and getting to know and teach Duke students. “There are just an enormous number of people here at Duke doing tremendously interesting things. And that was a big part of the reason why I wanted to come.”